First Plenary – Citizens and the State: The Crisis of Liberty

Natasa Mavronicola (UCL Student Human Rights Programme): Shami Chakrabarti gave an explosive start to the day, quick to reject the reference to citizens made by Anthony Barnett, the Co-Director of the Convention who introduced her, stating that she will not check our IDs for immigration status, adopting a defiant anti-nationalistic stance that ran through her whole speech. In her closing remarks, concluding her polemic on nationalism in the context of human rights, she referred to the idea of British rights for British citizens as “the road to Guantanamo Bay”.

She highlighted that what unites us in our pursuit of modern liberty in modern times is a shared concern – if not the same opinions – on what has been lost and what can be lost if we do not act. Frogs placed straight into boiling water jump out, she said, but put them in a pan of tepid water and they will stay there as the water gets warmer and warmer and they ultimately get fried to death: that is how liberty has been lost, not with a bang but with a whimper.

The first plenary then moved to a panel with the perhaps controversially worded theme, following Shami Chakrabarti’s speech: “Citizens and the state: the crisis of liberty”.

Dominic Grieve QC MP, Shadow Attorney General, attacked the creation of a “state monster” threatening to gobble liberty and alluded to the case of the praying nurse in Bristol as the epitome of the disempowerment brought about by excessive regulation. He condemned the failure of politicians to encourage an acceptance of what is largely inevitable risk instead of condoning over-regulation.

The shame brought to the country by the allegations of the UK’s collusion in the torture of Binyam Mohamed was a key reference point. What would the Tories have done? Conservatives can get things wrong, he accepted; but if they go about trying to do something authoritarian and silly, he continued, “somewhere in the back of our consciences as Conservatives somebody says, ‘your grandfather wouldn’t have approved’.”

Perhaps some in the audience looked for a stronger argument for human rights than the desire to avoid hypothetical disapproval by our forefathers – said forefathers may have given their blessing to much of what is now considered wrong in society. They found such argument when Helena Kennedy QC, member of the House of Lords in Parliament and barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, gave a brief description of the tragic effects that the incessant battle for security has had on criminal justice, spoken from her past experience as barrister. On a question from the audience alluding to internment in Northern Ireland, Helena Kennedy QC seized on the opportunity to highlight the “fantasy that laws on terrorism are vacuum-sealed” against the reality that these laws seep into the culture of policing and erode standards of criminal justice, such as the right to silence and trial by jury, in relation to all crime.

Adding to Shami Chakrabarti’s remarks, she condemned the “false dichotomy” between civil liberties and human rights, asserting that human rights are essentially the better, modern liberty which pertains not only to citizens but to all of us as human beings.

So what next? Helena Kennedy’s call to arms precipitated the second plenary. With the election coming up next year, she asked each and every one of us to require commitments in manifestos from political parties to return liberty to us; but also to ask ourselves key questions on where we stand on human rights so that our answers can determine our vote. The crowd was rallied with the reminder that “the state is here at our behest and we are not here at the behest of the state”.

Inevitably branded the ‘voice of dissent’ on the panel, Sir David Varney, the Prime Minister’s adviser on public service transformation, evoked the modernisation and efficiency of public services as the basis of the increase in information that the state requires on all of us. He denied the possibility and desirability of a single database and highlighted the need for safeguards and the right of the public to know what the state knows and what it is doing with that knowledge.

His most effective coup was when he alluded to the Guardian’s requests for personal information to subscribers of ‘Public’ magazine, ranging from sector of work to annual budget spend, and with the chance to opt out if you do not want the information to be passed on. It would be mad, he said, if we impose constraints on the public sector and turn a blind eye to the private sector. However, Ken Macdonald QC, former Director of Public Prosecutions, was not convinced, later accusing Sir David of a “category error” and distinguishing information voluntarily provided for private purposes from information being obtained by compulsion by the government.

Ken Macdonald QC highlighted a new paper prepared by Sir David Omand, which has received extensive coverage in The Guardian, essentially setting out a world where every one of us faces intrusive investigation into all aspects of our personal lives and communications ranging from our biometric data to our text messages. This is so regardless of whether there is any suspicion against us but in fact “to identify patterns of interest for further investigation”. His warning was clear: “to abolish the distinction between suspects and those suspected of nothing…is a clear hallmark of authoritarianism”.

So what to do when security concerns form the basis for this overprotective state monster that Dominic Grieve alluded to? Both Dominic Grieve and Ken Macdonald forcefully stated that citizens must make plain to their government that they are prepared consciously, as adults, to accept some element of risk in order to be free. For the more sceptical, Ken Macdonald offered the following caution: that we must take great care “to imagine the world we are creating before we build it”.

On this point, Georgina Henry, executive comment editor for The Guardian, chairing, intervened to ask Dominic Grieve whether a recent speech by Chris Grayling, Shadow Home Secretary, contradicted Dominic Grieve’s assertions. Chris Grayling had said that Conservative party policy would be about “fewer rights and more wrongs”, in other words, the emphasis shifting back to crime and away from civil liberties. A schism in the Conservative party? Possibly: Dominic Grieve admitted that he was “not completely clear” as to what that meant.

Dominic Grieve also responded to a sceptical member of the audience who reminded us that most governments tend to keep the powers they inherit. Significantly, his remarks included the promise (in his exact words): “we are going to get rid of identity cards!  Clearly. Clearly, finished. Done.” He also suggested that in their first year of government the Conservatives are going to look to create a bill repealing a lot of legislation, including much legislation that is, he said, “completely redundant”. It is unclear, however, if these statements represented the Conservative party’s agenda or merely Dominic Grieve’s own personal agenda.

Contributions by the audience were quite astute. A member of the audience highlighted that secondary legislation on ID cards provides that passports will not be renewed unless the person requesting such renewal has signed up to the ID card scheme – as a former resident of the USSR, he pointed out that denial of this right is a hallmark of a police state. Another got up to say that “we are not citizens, we are subjects”, continuing that “the state does not belong to me, it belongs to the curious concept called the Crown-in-Parliament”, thereby allowing the government of the day to do anything they like, before calling for “a new constitutional settlement”.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply